‘Infighting, bloodletting, internal feuding’: What next for the SNP, as Humza Yousaf and party leaders meet for national council?

Humza Yousaf will address activists in Perth this weekend as his party gears up for the general election

The SNP has endured a tough time over the past year or so. And according to one expert, things could be about to get worse.

James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, said the coming general election may come to be seen as a significant moment.

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"The next UK election will, I think, be a massive problem for the SNP because it will lose seats and then, I think, what we're already beginning to see will accelerate, i.e. members, activists starting to ask questions,” the academic, who is a leading authority on the party, told The Scotsman.

Humza Yousaf. Picture: Andy BuchananHumza Yousaf. Picture: Andy Buchanan
Humza Yousaf. Picture: Andy Buchanan

“What has gone wrong? Where are we going wrong? And there will be infighting, bloodletting, internal feuding. You get that in every political party that suffers a major defeat.”

The election will be at the forefront of Humza Yousaf’s mind as he addresses activists in Perth today. The SNP is holding a one-day “national campaign council” – a sort of mini party conference – at the city’s Concert Hall, and the First Minister will be keen to project an image of confidence.

He has already accepted Sir Keir Starmer’s party will “win big”, but argues SNP MPs are necessary to “stand up for Scotland”. The SNP, he says, can make Scotland a “Tory-free” zone.

However, polls indicate support for the Nationalists is slipping, while Labour is targeting seats across the Central Belt. Recent newspaper reports have also highlighted a slump in donations to the SNP. Since Mr Yousaf took office in March last year, the party has attracted £75,000 in bequests and donations. Under Alex Salmond, it received £8.2 million.

"Generally speaking, people like to back winners,” a former senior SNP figure said. “They don't want to throw good money after bad." The context of the SNP's "financial woes” over the past year will not have helped, they added.

Mr Salmond was seen as particularly skilled at wooing business leaders and attracting donors with deep pockets. Geoff Aberdein, his former chief of staff, said there was a concerted effort to build relationships in the years before the SNP won power in 2007.

"This stuff takes a long time to gain good relationships, to gain good network connections, and to really convey your vision,” he said. Business leaders don’t necessarily expect to get everything they ask for, he added, but they do want to be listened to.

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Mr Yousaf has been attempting to do just that. A senior party source said there had been a "much more intensified effort" to build relationships with businesses, alongside a "renewed focus" on the importance of fundraising and donations. In May, the SNP will hold a business dinner at the Ghillie Dhu bar and restaurant in Edinburgh’s west end, attended by the First Minister.

The senior figure said the SNP was still a well-resourced party. “It's far and away the biggest party in Scotland in terms of membership as well as elected representatives,” they said. “It's going to have a campaign for the general election that will be a well-resourced campaign."

And while Labour has a substantial, double-digit lead over the Conservatives down south, the most recent poll put the party level with the SNP in Scotland. "You could argue, given everything that's happened over the last year, that the SNP is in a much stronger position than we are sometimes given credit for,” the senior party source said.

Prof Mitchell said the SNP has an "immediate problem" as the general election approaches. "I think the problem it has is very much the same problem it faced in almost every election up until 2015, and that is the question of relevance,” he added. "What is the relevance of the SNP going into a UK general election?"

The SNP enjoyed a “wave of support” following the independence referendum, he said, but “that wave has hit the shore and it's receding now”.

He added: "There's no doubt the SNP rode that wave. What it failed to do was to channel the energy from that wave into something more permanent, and I think that was a failure of leadership."

Prof Mitchell said the SNP’s election message of making Scotland a “Tory-free” zone has no relevance in most constituencies, where the Conservatives are not expected to win. Meanwhile, talking up independence in the current circumstances risks looking foolish.

"Because the SNP is on the defensive, because it's looking set to lose seats, the notion that independence is going to come just looks silly,” he said. “They are in danger of looking and sounding silly going on about another independence referendum.”

He added: "Your message has to be credible."

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If the SNP loses seats at the general election, it will also lose short money – the funding to support opposition parties in Westminster. Parties currently receive £21,438.33 for every seat won, plus £42.82 for every 200 votes gained, as well as additional travel expenses.

Prof Mitchell pointed to the lessons of recent political history. In 1979, for example, both Labour and the SNP suffered electoral defeats and then “looked inwards”.

He said: "I think that's where the SNP is heading, particularly because there's a lack of serious leadership, there's not clear leadership there. In fairness, it's not easy to see what their message should be. If they lose seats, as is likely, they will also lose short money.

"That's a significant part of their income these days, because these big donations have gone. So there's a real danger they are going to spiral downwards, and there will be a lot of fingers pointing in different directions."

He added: "They’re going to be fighting like cats in a bag, I think, unless they can get a grip on it, and there's no evidence that that's going to happen."

If the SNP performs badly in the general election, Mr Yousaf could face pressure to stand down as leader.

"My expectation – it's not a prediction, but my expectation is that the SNP will go through a rapid series of leaders as parties that are in decline tend to do before they eventually get themselves sorted out and stabilise,” Prof Mitchell said.

The future looks uncertain, to say the least. For his part, Mr Yousaf is set to hammer home his “Tory-free” message when he addresses activists today. “The only party that will put Scotland first is the SNP,” he is expected to say. “When the SNP is winning, Scotland wins."



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